Grammar & Punctuation Guide

Like the Handy Word List, much of what you find in here was spotted in errors made not only by amateurs but by professional writers, especially journalists. This is just a very rough and preliminary guide, to be expanded in the future. Don't take it as authoritative, either; angry professors putting out contracts on the author would be a bad thing.

Punctuation - Dialog - Numbers - Other Issues - Easy Checks


The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is not used to make plurals. The plural of boss is bosses. The plural of horse is horses. If you write boss's or horse's, you're referring to something owned by the boss or the horse. The family named Smith is the Smiths, not the Smith's. Their house is the Smiths' house. The decade from 1940 to 1949 is the 1940s.

The apostrophe is used for possessives and contractions. Don't is a contraction of do not, so an apostrophe is inserted in place of the missing letters. As shown above, the head of the horse is the horse's head.

Here's where a lot of people get confused: Possessive pronouns do not take an apostrophe. The correct punctuation is its, hers, his, ours, yours, and theirs, not it's, her's, hi's, our's, your's, or their's. That right there the trick to remembering whether or not to put in an apostrophe: You wouldn't write hi's for the possessive of him, so don't write it's for the possessive of it.

Within the last few years, I have seen people who should know better dropping apostrophes into any word that is spelled somewhat like a common contraction. For example, I've seen "want" spelled as "wan't". For this I have only one word: Don't.

The Comma

The comma is the second most commonly used, and by far the most abused, punctuation mark. The most common forms of abuse are comma splices, unpaired commas, commas between the subject and the predicate of a sentence, and incorrect usage of commas when dealing with multiple modifiers.

A comma splice occurs when a writer doesn't end a sentence with a period, the writer puts a comma in where the period belongs and keeps on going. That was one. Complete the sentence. Stick in a period. Start a new sentence. Comma splices lead to run-on sentences that are confusing, difficult to read, and very, very dull.

Not all commas come in pairs, but many do. One of the main uses for the comma, possibly the primary one, is to set off a subordinate clause. What's that? It's "possibly the primary one" in the previous sentence. It's a phrase that could be removed without making the sentence grammatically incorrect. It takes two commas: one before, one after. Think of them as cut marks for the optional part of the sentence.

Next there is the comma between the subject and predicate of a sentence. "The barking dog, ran around the yard." When you evict all the modifiers and complexity, you get "The dog ran." You wouldn't write that "The dog, ran," would you? Of course not. Simplifying a complicated sentence can make it much easier to spot where commas do (and more importantly, don't) belong.

Finally, there is the matter of commas in multiple modifiers. This particular form of comma abuse seems to be becoming much more common, to the detriment of readability. For example, a garden catalog listed a rose as being a "light, pink color." That's wrong. Explaining why it's wrong is a little more complicated. First, though, an unofficial rule: You want to try to avoid using commas in lists of modifiers (adjectives and, rarely, adverbs) as much as possible. They turn a description into a laundry list, slow down the pace of the writing, and call unneeded attention to themselves.

One way to check for the need for a comma is to turn the statement into a question: "What color is the rose?" The answer would be "light pink", not "light and pink", so there should be no comma in the original description. On the other hand, if you ask "What kind of plant is it?" the answer might be "climbing and leafy", so it would be a climbing, leafy plant. Just to make matters more complicated, though, context can come into this. If we're discussing both roses and cacti, "leafy" would be appropriate only to the roses. So the climbing rose in question would be a "climbing leafy plant" and a climbing cactus (yes, there are such things) would be a "climbing leafless plant", because "leafy" and "leafless" have become part of noun phrases.

Be alert for noun phrases (a noun and its modifier which together function as a noun) and adjective phrases (an adjective modified by another adjective, such as "light pink" in our example, where "light" is modifying "pink"). These phrases are treated as monolithic nouns or adjectives, and therefore will not have commas between their halves. Noun phrases can be tricky to spot, but one good way is to see if the noun has an ambiguous meaning if it is used without its adjective. For example, if we're considering a "chocolate bar" taking off the adjective "chocolate" leaves us with just a "bar", which might be a barrier, a metal beam, a place to buy alcohol, a pile of sand in a river, a stripe, or a lot of other things. Therefore, "chocolate bar" can't live without its "chocolate" and is a noun phrase. So a "big chocolate bar" should not have a comma after "big" (and yes, I've seen them). Flipping the order of the modifiers also can help spot this: "a chocolate big bar" makes no sense. If the adjective can't be unstuck from what it is modifying, that's a noun or adjective phrase.

When in doubt, leave out the comma. I can't over-emphasize that if you're confused about whether or not to use a comma, the easiest and often best solution is to rewrite the sentence. There are very few cases in which simplifying an overly-complex sentence will not instantly improve one's writing. If you are in doubt about whether to use a comma, the odds are that you have too many modifiers in a row anyway. They become confusing as the reader digs through them in search of a noun. If you're talking about Mary Sue's flowing, sparkling, wavy, purple hair, you seriously need to remove some of those adjectives. Also the Sue.

One final concern with commas after modifiers: numbers. When you have a number involved, everything after the number is taken as a single noun phrase. For instance, if you have a whole company of sassy, perky, insolent Mary Sues, put in the number without a comma: 100 sassy, perky, insolent Mary Sues (then kill them all).

The Semicolon

For such an uncommon punctuation mark, the semicolon gets far more than its share of abuse. Despite what some writers seem to think, a semicolon is not a more decorative substitute for a comma. The short and sweet explanation is that a semicolon is what you should have used when you committed that great evil known as the comma splice. "I ate lunch with my cat, I read a book by Ernie Pyle" could correctly be punctuated "I ate lunch with my cat; I read a book by Ernie Pyle."

The Quotation Marks

Quotation marks surround a direct quotation in a sentence, such as in dialog. "I can drive the truck," he said. Notice also that the period which would normally follow "truck" is replaced by a comma, and the word following the quote is not capitalized. The quote and the attribution that follows it are a single sentence.

Quotation marks are not a way of adding emphasis; instead, they indicate that the speaker means something like the opposite of the literal meaning. In speech, this might be shown with a sneer. For example, if someone says they saw you and your "wife" last night, it's a good bet that the person being referred to is not legally married to you, and possibly not even female.


Dialog-related issues seem to have developed a need for their own section, expanding on the brief mention of how to write dialog in the Quotation Marks section.

Every change of speakers requires a new paragraph. That is a basic rule of writing. You can have someone react in a non-verbal way to speech, but if they actually say something, it gets its own paragraph.

Dialog is enclosed in quotation marks. The entire package inside those quotation marks is considered to be a clause, and treated as such in a sentence. The attribution – that's the "he said" part – doens't stand alone. For example:

Wrong: "I like trucks." He said.

"He said" is not a valid sentence. "Say" is a transitive verb – that is, somoenoe has to say something. "Sleep," by comparison, is intrasitive; "he slept" is a perfectly valid sentence. That's true of just about anything you could use for attribution. This is another case where turning the sentence around makes it easier to understand. You wouldn't write He said. "I like trucks." That would produce a sentence fragment with no purpose and a quote with no attribution. If it doesn't work backward, it generally won't work forward. The correct way of writing it is this:

Right: "I like trucks," he said.

If you flip that around, you get He said "I like trucks." That works. So that's the way the sentence should go.

If you don't care about the reasons, just the rules, here they are:

Also, while it doesn't come up very often as a problem, there is a difference between direct and indirect quotes. A direct quote is the speaker's exact words: "I like trucks." An indirect quote, on the other hand, is a description of those words: He said he liked trucks. Direct quotes are generally of the form "X," said Y while indirect quotes are generally in the form "Y said that he X." This is not something people usually get wrong, so unless someone has gigged your story on it, you probably don't need to worry about it.

Number Problems

There is a recent trend, apparently spread by ignorant journalists, of hyphenating numbers when they are used as nouns as well as (correctly) adjectives.

Properly: A six-year-old child is a child who is six years old.

That should never be written as "a child who is six-years-old." This also seems to lead to confusion when a single number is being used to modify a noun. Then the number is a plain old adjective, and should be left alone, but people have started sticking hyphens in there anyway. For example, if you have a whole lot of trucks, you have 100 trucks, not 100-trucks. You do, however, have a 100-truck convoy. And a hell of a parking problem.

I recently saw a simple rule of thumb for telling if the hyphen is needed or not: you can have a plural, or a hyphen, but not both. So it's six years old, or six-year-old, but not six-years-old.

On a related note, 100 is said as "one hundred"; therefore, "one 100" is incorrect. The same is true for 1000, etc. "One $1000 dollars" is doubly incorrect; you either use the $ symbol or spell it out, but not both.

Ignorant store clerks price things at .50 cents. In some states in the US, this means that you can legally demand to get two of those for a penny. It correctly should be $.50, as it costs .50 (half) of a dollar, or it should be 50 cents, as it costs 50 pennies. The price is given as either a fraction of a dollar or a number of cents; combining the two means fractional cents, which I guarantee is not what was intended.

Other Issues

A few words about -ed: When a verb is being used as an adjective, it takes an -ed ending (or its own particular past tense ending if that isn't -ed). For instance, if you put a thing in a box, you have a boxed thing, not a box thing. Yes, those signs in Best Buy's music department advertising "box sets" are wrong. Those would be sets of boxes, not sets in a box. My grocery store gets it wrong in aisle signs for things like "can soup", too. They can make soup out of cans? Who knew? Yet they also sell "boxed dinners" — they can't even be consistent about whether or not to be wrong.

A few words about -ate and -ant: The -ate suffix goes on verbs: "dominate" is the verb form. The -ant suffix goes on adjectives: "dominant" is the adjective form. There are actually one or two weird exceptions where the -ate form can also be treated as an adjective, but it's safer just to follow the rule.

A few words (possibly enclosed by commas) about apposition: If a phrase describes or redefines another word, but could be taken out of the sentence without changing its meaning, it should be enclosed in commas. "His sister, Sue, is smart" means that he has only one sister, and anyone who knew his family would know that Sue is his only sister. On the other hand, "His sister Sue is smart" indicates that he has more than one sister, and Sue is the smart one. As a general rule, anything enclosed in commas is a unique example of its kind (his only sister), while if it lacks commas, it's being differentiated from other sisters, brothers, or whatever else may be being described. Take out the phrase in commas and see if it still makes sense.

Bring and take: I have a beef with World of Warcraft, in which quest text frequently says "Bring this maguffin to Sir Foozle." If you're going to Sir Foozle, you have to take the maguffin. On the other hand, "bring" would be correct in "Bring me back whatever Sir Foozle gives you." It's easy to remember: you bring something when you come and you take it when you go. Everyone can get "come" and "go" right, so just remember those. Bring home the bacon, take out the trash.

Compound complaints: There are a fair number of words which are separate words when used as nouns but compound when used as adjectives or adverbs. For example, an everyday item is an item you can use every day and a backseat driver sits in the back seat.

Noun Modifier
back seatbackseat
back yardbackyard
every dayeveryday


Easy Substitution Tests

This section has been expanded and moved to the Mnemonics page.


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